The Customs Card

The flight attendants of Silk Air wore wonderful outfits.

“They look like a healthy colony of autumn pastel paisley came into an osmotic imbalance and every cell wall ruptured spilling the color,” said Angelo.

Dexter was in the window seat next to him. He said, “As usual, I don’t know what you’re talking about but you seem to know and that’s always good.”

“Did you see the one that came through with the drink cart?”

“Oh-ho, did I?”

They were beautiful in many idioms; Chinese, part Chinese, Malaysian, Indian Malaysian. They were friendly. The seats on the plane were the most comfortable things Angelo and Dexter had ever sat on. They each had a Nintendo to play in their seat and a selection of movies they could bring up on the screens. They were flying coach but there were no coach seats on Silk Air. On the trip status monitor the plane was right out of Seoul making its turn to the southwest.

“This is so cool,” said Dexter.

“I know.”

“I’m never going home. I love Asia. Shanghai is such a blast. And Japan oughta be a lot better than Korea if I can save any money.”

“Well, you’ll like Singapore too I think. I’m glad you came. We’re gonna have a great time.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“Oh, really?” Angelo asked.

“What are we gonna do first?”

“Oh, everything, there’s a lot of stuff to see. A terrific night zoo. Some decent bars. Get you hooked up with some SPGs.”

“SPGs?”

“Singapore Pinkerton Girls. Or Party Girls if you prefer. You get the idea.”

“What’s that about?”

“They love white boys.”

“Wow! Better than Shanghai. If a local girl’s friendly to you there, well, let’s just say you better have money and a condom and let it go at that.”

“None of that here really. Singapore’s really beautiful. No litter, no crime, no problems. Even gum chewing is illegal. It’s a little boring, actually. Kind of a big shopping mall. But you’ll be freaked out with the electronics. It’s more modern than home really.”

“Clubs?”

“I’ll take you to the Long Bar at Raffles. It’s where they invented the Singapore Sling. They’re sixteen bucks but they’re good.”

“Sixteen?”

“Sixteen Sing. About the same as sixteen Canadian. We don’t do too much drinking. It’s all that expensive. We’ll double up in the Duty Free shop and get three liters of everything each. That’s all you’re allowed but it’s like half of what they charge in town.”

“Wow. Well, I’m not too worried about drinking anyway.”

“Why’s that? Give it up while you were in Shanghai?”

“Ha! Well, I did slow down but that’s not it. Although it is why I slowed down.”

“Oh, yeah, what’s it?”

Dexter smiled and looked around just for a second to make sure no one was actively eavesdropping.

“Opium,” he said quietly, “Shanghai’s finest.”

All the bones and musculature went out of Angelo’s face. Then he folded his lower lip under his front teeth.

“Do you have it on you?”

“No. You think I’m stupid? It’s in my checked bag.”

“Okay, tell me, exactly how much you’ve got?”

“Plenty, relax.”

“Really, how much?”

“Don’t worry. Got plenty for both of us for the whole two weeks. And enough for any of your friends and enough to take some back to Japan. It was my big going away score.”

“Okay, you know, I’d like you to read something for me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Hey, I’ll tell you what, we’re gonna have a great time. No worries, no problems. Just let’s fill out the customs cards.”

“You’re freaking me out, Angelo.”

Angelo pulled the cards out of the seat in front of them and handed Dexter one. He turned it over to its back where the Important Notice box was printed. At the bottom in red ink, it said, “WARNING—DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW.”

Dexter read it. His color changed. He said, “But I’m Canadian.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“This isn’t real?”

“Yes, it is. They do it all the time.”

“What am I gonna do?”

“Relax. And keep your voice normal.”

“Are they gonna go through our bags?”

“They don’t usually. They’ve never done it to me.”

“You gotta tell it ’em it was a mistake. I didn’t know.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“We gotta dump it.”

“I don’t think that’s any good. It’s a tight little trip through customs. Somebody would see. Everybody would see.”

They sat still for about a minute. Dexter took off his seatbelt. He stared out the window. They were in a cloud bank. There was nothing to see.

“I don’t wanna die.”

“Hey. Knock it off.”

“Sorry.”

“Let me think,” Angelo said, “Why don’t you play Mario some more?”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“Fake it.”

“Five more hours…”

Dexter started up the Nintendo again. It worked, sort of. He stopped thinking and time was allowed to progress.

Dexter put the game controller down like he’d thought of something. “I gotta be able to just leave it somewhere. Take it out and dump it in a plant or something.”

“There’s nothing for it. The baggage is right next to customs. This is a really busy airport. We should just go through normally. It’s better than risking somebody seeing. I’ll stay with you.”

“Are you sure?”

“I think it’s the best way.”

“You sure you want to come in with me?”

“We bought our tickets together. It doesn’t matter. If they catch you, they’ll come find me in an hour.”

“But you’ve got a Residence card. Don’t they have a special line for that?”

“Yeah. It’s okay. It’s all the same. I think it’s better that there are two of us. I think they probably single out people travelling alone for inspections more often.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I guess we can forget Duty Free shopping this time.”

Another hour passed. Dexter was trying to get comfortable in his seat and looking out the window. He turned to say something to Angelo. Angelo was asleep with his cheek on his palm and his elbow on the armrest. Dexter sat shaking his head, looking around for nothing at all.

The seat belt light came on with a bing. The head flight attendant made landing announcements in English, Japanese and Chinese.

Angelo sat up. Angelo rubbed his eyes with his palms. “This problem we’ve got. Just for my peace of mind. How is it… wrapped?”

“Pretty well. In plastic and washed.”

“I’ve never seen them use dogs here. I was more concerned about what someone might assume it to be on X-ray or if they happened to end up actually handling it.”

“I’d say X-ray, perfect. Handling… depend on the thoroughness.”

“Just curious.”

“How can you be so calm?”

“I want it to be okay. Being calm is the best way to do that.”

They stood up in the aisle, like Asians, the moment the plane was pulling to the terminal, a good five minutes before the seatbelt light went off.

Fifteen minutes later one of the women who wasn’t quite Chinese in one of the beautiful dresses that wasn’t quite paisley said, “Thank you for flying Silk Air, welcome to Singapore.”

They ducked through the hatch out of the plane.

The people marched like ants into the airport toward baggage. Dexter kept trying to fall back but Angelo walked forward quickly, getting around people when possible. Dexter had to keep pace.

They got to the baggage carousel. They didn’t bother to get a cart. They just had one checked bag each and one carry-on. Neither of their bags was there. They waited. Dexter stood still, focused on the bags. His was small and black and every bag being grabbed off the carousel seemed to be. Angelo walked, stretching his legs.

Angelo took a quick step between two Germans and grabbed Dexter’s bag.

“Thanks.”

Angelo saw his right after it. He grabbed it and said, “Let’s go.”

“I’m not ready.”

“Look we need to be in front. They’ll try to get people through faster when there are more of them. They don’t want a big line backing up. If we show up at the back they’ll have all the time in the world to pick and choose whose bags to go through.”

“Okay.”

They began walking quickly. Most everyone was.

“Just be natural. Look tired and bored.”

“Okay.”

About six of the desks were open. The lines formed up, they were so long that they seemed to be moving slowly, though the average time through was less than thirty seconds per person. All the agents were men. The line to the far left was for citizens and those with residence cards. It was moving quickly and it was shorter anyway. It would be gone momentarily.

Dexter’s tongue kept flicking out over his lips. Then he’d bring the back of his sleeve up to wipe the saliva away. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other every three or four seconds. Wiping his palms off on his pants. Angelo saw it, tried not to.

“Chew some gum or something,” Angelo said into the air.

Dexter took a piece out of his pocket and had it. It worked for all of a minute.

“Calm down,” said Angelo to the ground in front of Dexter. He could see the customs officer who had been scanning the crowd. His glance came back quicker and quicker to Dexter.

The line was splitting up. They’d opened another two desks. Angelo or Dexter would be up in another couple of minutes. The officer was fairly staring at Dexter now.

“I don’ wanna do this.”

“We’ve got to.”

“I don’t want to die.”

Angelo said, barely moving his lips, “Shut up, you asshole. Don’t look at me, don’t talk to me. Just listen. Go straight out when you get through. There’re a couple of cab stands. Tell the driver my street and just go.” Angelo palmed a bill to Dexter as casually as he could. “That’s a fifty. It’s much more than you’ll need. Now, get away from me, back up. Let the woman cut in between us. It’s natural here, they won’t think it’s weird.”

Angelo stepped up in the line. Moving around the side of the man in line ahead of him. Angelo jerked his suitcase off the ground. It was heavy. Too heavy to hold that way but he did it. He clutched it to himself like it was trying to get away. He pushed his breathing; tried to breathe like a frantic rabbit through his nose. He began to sweat heavily from the strain of the bag and the breathing and the Singapore climate. He stared at the customs officer. When the officer’s gaze shifted to him Angelo jerked his eyes away. He did it again.

Angelo was up. Dexter was two back in the line.

“Anything to declare?”

Angelo said, “It’s all there on the card.”

“I asked you if you have anything to declare.”

“And I’m saying, ‘No,’ it’s on the card right there in front of you.”

“All right, step aside.”

“What?”

“Step over to the inspection counter.”

“I’m in a hurry.”

“Please, just step over to the side. Now.”

“Why?”

The officer looked to the side, raised his hand and made a motion like he was scratching an invisible animal in midair. Two of the officers from the inspection counter came walking over quickly.

“Please, go to the inspection counter.”

Angelo grasped his bag tighter but started to walk over with the two officers.

“Anything to declare?”

Dexter was standing at the counter before he knew it. He’d been unconscious of walking up to it. He was watching Angelo. He turned his look away, closed his mouth, and said, “Huh?”

“Anything to declare?”

“Oh, sorry. No,” said Dexter in a friendly but cracking voice.

“What is your next destination?”

“Oh, uh, Osaka, Japan.”

“Purpose of your visit.”

“Uh, vacation, tourism.”

“How much gum do you have?” Dexter was unconscious of chewing it.

“Um, two packs I think.” His eyes were trying to overpower him, to look at Angelo, ten meters to the side. He could hear them talking. He could hear everyone talking.

“Is that all?”

“Huh? Yeah. Yes, it is. Right here in my pocket,” he said pulling them out to show the officer.

“That’s all right,” he said, laughing.

There was a sound like a large beetle being smashed under a fist. The officer had stamped his Passport. He handed it back and said, “Have a nice stay in Singapore.”

Dexter took his passport and walked straight out to the cab stand. No one bothered him or even looked at him though it took twenty minutes to get one.


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